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The British Brand: branding, Scottish devolution and what it means to be ‘British’

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Does Britain need re-branding?

The United Kingdom is in danger of breaking up – and we are all helping to make that happen by sloppy management of the British brand.

The landslide victory of the Scottish Nationalist Party in Scotland in the general election, following a significant vote in the Referendum earlier in the year, point to a tide of change threatening to dissolve the union of Great Britain.

And we are all helping that happen through crass, thoughtless, and short-sighted actions that send out brand signals that the majority of British, particularly English citizens, either don’t care about the Union, or that it is a one-sided union to the benefit of the majority partner. Which, I personally do not believe is the case.

Whether Scotland should be part of Britain, or how different ethnic groups align themselves to ‘British’ culture – the questions at the heart of these debates – are really about what is the ‘British’ brand –  and is it fit for purpose, and what can be done to make it work better?

We are facing profound signals of the consequence of failing to establish a coherent, compelling and authentic British brand – a brand that unites and provides a platform for shared passion and pride.

The concept of the ‘British Brand’ is not about taking or leaving it, we don’t have a choice. Every action you take can help either reinforce and deepen, or loosen and make weaker what is perceived as the British brand.

We do have a choice how we manage our Brand for a better collective destiny within these Isles.

Yet, we are coming perilously close to a break-up of a once mighty tribe, and if you believe that everyone in Great Britain is better served by being together we need to go forward with renewed vigour and confidence.

A plurality of narratives

We need to encourage a plurality of narratives to describe our identity within the context of different Home Countries nationalities – English, Northern Irish, Scottish, Welsh and the parent identity of British.

Last year, Welsh Rugby captain Sam Warburton was criticised for describing himself as ‘British’ rather than firstly Welsh.

There needs to be an open reflection on how we can all go forward together – the 45% of people who voted ‘Yes’ in the Referendum, others looking on from the rest of the UK feeling impotent that they had no say in decisions affecting their identity and more. And to provide a platform to declare that yes, it is OK to describe yourself as ‘British’ rather than English, Northern Irish, Scottish, or Welsh.

You don’t have a choice to be a Brand

Being British is about recognising there is a ‘British’ brand

If you mention the word ‘brand’ most people associate it with consumer goods and names like ‘Microsoft’ ‘Coca Cola’ or ‘Dolce and Gabbana’.

Yet, each and every one of us is a brand. Our campaigns and organizations are brands – and even our communities and nation states are brands.

You don’t have a choice about whether to be a brand or not. What you can choose however, is how to manage your brand.

This is not saying you have to be artificial and false. Indeed, a key quality of a brand is its need for integrity and authenticity – a truthfulness about what is at the heart of the Brand.

Brand is a matter of life and death – the London bombings

I was inspired to explore the question of the ‘British Brand’ by the tragic events of the 7/7 bombings in 2005; 56 people including the four bombers were killed by the events.

I missed the Aldgate bomb by 12 minutes. (Although I argue everyone missed it by 12 minutes because it could have happened to anyone.)

My dear friend Robert Webb was not so lucky. He lost his beloved sister Laura in the Edgware Road bombing, which in the aftermath, led to him making an emotional appeal on national television appealing for any news of her.

I am a rather stupid person. If I see something wrong I feel I ought to do something about it.

It seemed to me that all of us – including the bombers – are members of a club. And somehow, there are some members so disaffected by the club they chose to do untold harm to other club members.

Recognising that the bombers were from Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, nearby where I then lived, and also working as a professional communicator, I thought it pertinent to explore the communications failure that we had witnessed, along with how the brand that was supposed to hold us all together had somehow failed.

The idea emerged of a conference called ‘Hope after the Bombings’ to explore what had happened and how communicators could play their role in rebuilding our communities.

The event in November 2005 ranks as one of my proudest contributions to this planet: speakers included Robert Webb sharing his story, broadcaster Darcus Howe, Colin Parry (who lost his son Tim in the Warrington bombings), Adeem Yunis, founder of and many other valuable contributions – all with a different take and perspective of the 7/7 bombings experience.

My contribution was about the British brand.

Understanding the mechanics of Brands

So, what is the relevance of using Branding as a tool and how can it be used to assist our debates whether about Scottish devolution or diversity?

A brand is made up of three elements:

  • Icons – the pictures (or lack of) that come to mind when you mention the name
  • Values – these underpin our behaviours, influencing what we do, or don’t do
  • Information – the currency of facts we use in the dialogue about the brand.

Why previous attempts to define British Values failed

The crucial element in considering what is meant by the ‘British’ brand is Values.

Values are the glue that holds us together? They are the gel uniting us as a group, live together and share a common destiny?

Clearly there had been a breakdown with the actions of the 7/7 bombers. They had clearly gone beyond what is acceptable Brand behaviour.

You are right in thinking that there has been much previous soul searching about the question of ‘What are British Values’?

I feel these efforts have failed or had limited success because:

  • They were top-down imposed
  • They failed to make themselves meme-friendly (memorable and easily pass-on-able)
  • They were reviewed outside the context of using the construct of Brand.

When exploring your Values I argue you should only identify five individual Values.

The reason? Usually, you can only remember five things. (Try to name the magnificent seven, seven wonders etc.) Therefore, you really need to establish the top five and use your energies to make these memorable.

Also, by failing to harness the model of a Brand you can then use your Values to filter what Icons and Information you can suitably harness to promote your message.

The need for emergent, bottom-up thinking

By looking at the issue from a top-down perspective you are imposing a world-view on others. By encouraging bottom-up thinking you can allow others to shape their take on the British Brand from their viewpoint. They can take ownership of the resulting insight and perspective.

The reality is that we have nearly 61 million individual definitions of what people define as their ‘British Brand’. Inevitably however, from the complexity, rather like a mosaic picture, a clear central image can emerge.

My bottom-up contribution for what I define as the five British Values is:

#1 Physical safety – we come together to help us avoid/reduce the physical threat from others, both outside and inside our communities.

#2 Social justice – we support our weaker members and ensure fair access to resources,

opportunities and fulfilling potential.

#3 Tolerance – we respect the right to be different

#4 Uphold democratic principles – of majority rules and respecting minorities rights (using

Values #1,#2,and #3)

#5 Libertarianism – which can manifest itself as a constructively sceptical view to blind obedience to authority, or to benign irreverence – at the root of so called ‘British humour’ -where we don’t take ourselves too seriously.

I am not saying these are the absolute Values for the British brand, rather they are my personal take, and you are more than willing to embrace or reject. By encouraging you to do so, I am using and upholding Values #3, #4 and #5.

A better model going forward

By using the concept of Brand it will help you gain greater understanding and insight. It provides a model for taking your take on the ‘British Brand’ forward.

We are facing a break-up. We now need to bind the family together again to go forward to make the most of our potential and situation.

Being British as a Brand is not about taking or leaving it, we don’t have a choice. We do have a choice how we manage our Brand for a better collective destiny within these Isles.

So, if you are debating about future of the Union or diversity and inclusivity in our communities – do so through the lens of Brands.

By using the concept of Brand it will help you gain greater understanding and insight. It will also provide a model for taking your take on the ‘British Brand’ forward.

This is urgent. I for one don’t want to see the break-up of the Union – a union of equal partners in a club currently called ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’.

Some changes will be easy to adopt. Some may be more challenging.

Yet, we are facing a family break-up, and if you believe that everyone in Great Britain is better served by being together, you need to act.

Let’s stop being sloppy about the British Brand. Let’s address what is meant by our ‘British Brand’ so we can go forward with renewed vigour and confidence.

The full version of this post can be found at

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